Jacem

St. Mary’s Road, Moston, is almost entirely residential nowadays, but not so long ago it housed several industries, including one which is almost completely forgotten.

John Johnson of Manchester, an iron wire-drawer and maker of nails and pins, had a business in the early 1800s on Shudehill, and later in Ancoats and Dale St. In 1838, he handed over the business to his younger sons, Richard and William (born in 1809 and 1811), the firm being named “Richard Johnson and Brother”. An older son, Thomas Fildes Johnson, became a cotton spinner, taking no part in the wire trade, but Richard and William expanded the business and made their reputation by supplying the wires for the first cross-Channel telegraph cable in 1851.

In 1853 the brothers took over the Bradford (Manchester) ironworks on Forge Lane and after William’s death in 1860, Thomas’s son John Thewlis Johnson became a partner, the firm now becoming “Richard Johnson and Nephew”. This is a name still familiar to many, as it thrived right up to the 1970s, when it was acquired by Firth Brown Ltd. The brothers also held shares in the nearby Bradford Colliery.

In addition to producing wire and cables, which now included copper and brass as well as iron, around 1860 Richard co-founded another firm to make hardware items such as wire gauze, netting, brick ties, concrete reinforcing mesh and many other items for domestic as well as industrial use. Two new partners joined him in this venture: William Clapham and Joseph Morris (from Swansea) – this firm, based at the old Dale St premises, was named Johnson, Clapham and Morris. The combined operations employed around 550 people in 1861.

The company enjoyed continued success and after St.Clement’s church on Lever St closed in 1878, it was acquired for their main office and warehouse. By 1880, Richard had earned enough to buy a grand house in Chislehurst, Kent, where he died in Feb 1881, although his body was brought back to Cheetham Hill Wesleyan Cemetery for burial in the family vault. An only son, also Richard, had died in 1865, so once again it was a nephew, William Henry, that carried on the Johnson name.

Phenomenal business expansion prompted the establishment of a new, larger works in Moston, (sometimes referred to as Newton Heath), begun in 1902 off St.Mary’s Road, close to Tymm St. The new – appropriately named – Clapham St and Wireworks St (now Beechdale Close) were later added. Miner’s lamps, bedsteads, galvanised dustbins, lawn-mowers and all manner of other products supplemented their range, under the brand-name “Jacem”, formed from the initial letters of the company name.

William Henry Johnson had four sons, of whom two were killed in action in Belgium during the First World War. Since their father had died six months before the war started, each in turn briefly became managing director. William Morton Johnson was a Captain in the Manchester Regiment, and died on 2 July 1916; Capt. Ronald Lindsay Johnson, Royal Field Artillery, was killed on 29 May 1917. Ronald, in his will, desired his estate to be shared among the workers at J, C & M – this was later effected by purchasing part of the Broadhurst estate and creating playing fields for the works staff, named in his memory.

Around 1925, the company acquired premises next to St. Cuthbert’s church on Third Avenue, Trafford Park, which they named “Jacem House”. By now they were acting as general hardware wholesalers, and this became their head office and warehouse, while retaining the works in Moston and elsewhere for manufacturing their own-brand items. At their height, they also had premises in Liverpool, London, Middlesbrough and Glasgow, and offices in Australia and New Zealand.

As “Jacem”, they continued to supply hardware goods and were reputed to be a good firm to work for – they even featured in a promotional film for Stretford Borough in 1933, showing off their well-equipped staff canteen. Gradually, however, the manufacturing side was scaled down, and the Moston site was sold in 1934 to Ferranti Ltd (another story, as they say).

The company continued to trade as wholesalers up to the 1970s at least, and although I have not discovered exactly when it closed, Jacem House was demolished during 1989, much of Trafford Park ‘village’ following soon after.

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Boxes on Wheels

Brownsfield Mill, by the Rochdale canal just off Great Ancoats Street, was built in 1820-5 as a spinning mill, but by the 1880s was already home to various small traders, making umbrellas, prams and other items. One such trader was William Payne, a wood-turner and chair maker originally from Berkshire, who settled there in 1889. Another was Humphrey Verdon Roe, who made surgical dressings and “Bull’s Eye” braces.

Brownsfield Mill in 2008

In the early 1900s, Humphrey let his younger brother, Edwin Alliott (who always preferred his second name) use his workshop for making experimental model aeroplanes, and later full-sized ones, William Payne often supplying the timber. William’s grandson, Jack Whitehouse, would occasionally hang around his grandad’s workshop, and many years later recalled Alliott as a very friendly young man, asking how he was getting on at school, and so on.

With help from his brother, in 1909 Alliott founded a company that was to become world-famous: A.V.Roe & Co, shortened to AVRO. Some of his early designs, including the “Bull’s Eye” triplane, which was the first successful all-British aeroplane, were fabricated in Ancoats. After being disassembled they were taken by horse and cart to London Road station, to be sent by train to places like Brooklands for assembly and testing.

Newton Heath branch

In 1910, the firm moved to larger premises at Clifton Street, Miles Platting. By then, young Jack had left school and found work on the railway, but Alliott offered him a job as a wire splicer: early multi-wing planes needed a lot of wire bracing, to give strength while keeping the weight down. Three years later an even larger works at Newton Heath was acquired, at the corner of Briscoe Lane and Ten Acres Lane, in an extension originally built for Mather and Platt.

Jack (who by the way was my grandad) was photographed here, with the splicing team, in 1914; he is at the back, second from the left

The First World War, of course, established Avro as major aircraft designers and manufacturers, and the experience Jack gained with them led to his being recruited into the Royal Flying Corps as a rigger, making netting and other ropework for reconnaissance balloons, which were still very much in vogue. After the war, he was offered his old job back at Avro, but said he preferred being in the open air. He went back to the railway, first as a shunter and eventually as a goods guard.

Avro’s went from strength to strength, with premises at Woodford, Yeadon and Hamble being used at various times. In 1939 another huge works was built at Greengate, Chadderton, although the Newton Heath works was retained until 1947. One of the best-known aircraft of the Second World War, the Avro Lancaster, was designed here, around half of the 7,000 built coming from Chadderton. Another famous design followed just after the war: the Vulcan bomber, also designed at Greengate.

BAE Greengate, Chadderton

AVRO became part of Hawker Siddeley Aviation in 1963, during which period my uncle, Albert Robinson, worked in the offices at Chadderton. In 1977, the year he retired, the merged company was acquired by British Aerospace (later BAe Systems), who continued making aviation equipment until 2011.

I have not discovered what became of the Miles Platting works, but the other three buildings mentioned are still standing. Brownsfield Mill, after many years housing small businesses, is now an apartment block. The Briscoe Lane works, once used by the Co-operative Wholesale Society as a repair depot for their vehicle fleet, acts as a clothing warehouse, and the huge Chadderton plant is now home to Mono Pumps and Kitbag Ltd (sports clothing).

“Bull’s Eye” triplane

The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester has an example of a “Bull’s Eye” triplane, although this is actually a replica, built from original drawings in 1964 for the film “Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines”.

In the 1950s, my grandad was interviewed by a reporter from the Manchester Evening News, recalling the pioneering days in Ancoats, so perhaps I should let him have the last word:

“Those machines looked for all the world like boxes on wheels, but we thought they were wonderfully up-to-date then.”

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A much more complete history of AVRO, its sites and products, can be found at their heritage centre in Woodford, Cheshire. Click here to view their website.

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Crossing a Line

The footpath between New Moston and Failsworth nowadays passes beneath the Oldham Metrolink line by a fairly insignificant subway, notable only for constant flooding in heavy rain.In the 1880s, this spot had a notoriety now long forgotten…

The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway had proposed a branch from Newton Heath to the rapidly-expanding coal and cotton district of Hollinwood in 1872. Powers to build it, with an extension to Oldham, were granted in 1875, construction beginning the following year. Although it provided an easier route than by the fearsome incline from Middleton Junction to Werneth, the Hollinwood Branch nevertheless involved some stiff gradients and major earthworks, with many cuttings and embankments.

The section near Wrigley Head, Failsworth, was the only stretch level with the surrounding land and coincidentally met the existing footpath here, so a gated level crossing was provided. The line was opened in May 1880, two years behind schedule, but a major flaw was soon exposed. The crossing, past which trains were travelling at their fastest, had no signal box or lights, only ‘Whistle’ warning signs for engine drivers, about 70 yards either side. The railway company had evidently assumed there would not be many people using the crossing, and that anyone wishing to cross could easily summon a gate attendant: they were wrong on both counts.At that time, just off Wrigley Head, there was a small group of dwellings, known for a time as Bridge Street, and at one of these lived coal miner John Cooper, his wife Elizabeth and four children. Elizabeth was given responsibility for attending to the gates, evenings only, but all day on alternate Sundays. For this, the L&YR paid an allowance of 2s 6d per week. A full-time attendant was provided, but only during the day. It should perhaps have been obvious that, even part-time, entrusting the crossing to an ordinary citizen, no doubt with distractions of her own, was hardly a reliable system.

At around 11am on Friday, 10 September 1880, Elizabeth Salt, a fish-seller from Elias St, Miles Platting, had been showing her wares to the crossing keeper and set off towards New Moston, despite seeing a train approaching from the Dean Lane direction (Failsworth did not yet have a station). She was repeatedly warned to wait until the train had passed, but decided to chance it – she was struck by the engine, travelling at about 25 mph, and killed instantly.An inquest was held on Monday, 13 September at the Sun Inn in Failsworth, at which the coroner (Frederick Price) returned a verdict of accidental death, but criticised the L&YR Company for having wholly inadequate safeguards at what was already proving to be a very busy – and dangerous – crossing. It was stated that several hundred people crossed the line every day, for work, shopping or to attend schools. Elizabeth, 38, was buried at St. John, Failsworth, two days later.

Failsworth station opened in April 1881 and later that year the railway company applied for powers to build a footbridge to replace the crossing. At some stage the company decided instead on a subway, which could be made wider and accommodate carts. By February 1882 work had still not begun, and the Failsworth and Moston local Boards were pressing the company for feedback.

So, to the night of Thursday, 30 August 1883. Two boys aged nine and eight, Stephen and Henry (Harry) Bullows of Ricketts Street, New Moston, were sent on an errand by their father to buy bread in Failsworth. They were joined near the crossing by a friend, Samuel Stringfellow from Jones Street. When the boys returned, about 8:20pm, it was getting dark and, seeing no-one at the gates, Sam crossed first but heard an Oldham-bound train approaching and called to the others to wait, which they did. What they did not see, or hear, was that another train was bearing down on them from the Oldham direction. Perhaps its sound was masked by that of the receding train.Sam’s last view of them was of Stephen attempting to hold Harry back. As the trains disappeared into the gloom, Sam could not at first see his friends, but then noticed a shredded handkerchief lying on the track. He raised the alarm and John Cooper, coming out to see what the commotion was, discovered one of the boys, decapitated, beside the line; the other lay badly mutilated nearby, and died shortly afterwards. Sam ran to Ricketts Street, met on the way by a couple of other friends, to give John Bullows the terrible news that his lads had been killed.

Another Sun Inn inquest followed, conducted by the same coroner as in 1880 – this time, although no individuals were blamed, the failure to replace the crossing after the first fatality caused the company to come in for severe criticism. They were ordered to put the subway work in hand as soon as possible, in consultation with the Failsworth Board, and to install lights and permanent watchmen at the crossing in the meantime. The brothers were laid to rest at St. Mary’s churchyard, Moston.After a couple more false starts, the subway was eventually built (1884-5), the Bridge Street properties being demolished to make room for it. It was renewed around 1910 and lasted in this form until 2010, when the side walls and decking were replaced during Metrolink conversion, giving its present appearance. The path remains as busy as ever, but few people now give the subway a second glance, or have any inkling of its dark history.

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